Krush Groove (1985)

Krush Groove resides firmly on my list of guilty pleasures — a film that generates unintentional laughs from its worst moments, but which only makes me love it all the more for it, to the point where I actually think it’s a fun and interesting flick.  A big part of why I like it comes from the fantastic old school hip hop, featuring early glimpses at rap’s second generation, including Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, among others.  Back then, these acts were almost never played on MTV, or most radio stations, leaving it up to our imaginations as to just what it was like in the middle of the rap scene.  Not only could we now see all of our favorite performers, we could also enjoy them act (well, trying to act), and perform in a mainstream format.

The seed of the film started when Israeli film producer Menahem Golan, who had already produced two breakdancing films in Breakin’  and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, thought it would be interesting to make a film about a burgeoning form of music that may have been deemed faddish, but quite popular among the much-desired young demographic, rap.  Russell Simmons, whose Rush Entertainment controlled twenty acts, including the hottest handful, was approached on the idea, but, much like he did when approached to provide music for Harry Belafonte’s Beat Street, the project didn’t seem to put the rap scene in a good light, treating it as a passing fad, and declined.

However, it did give him the idea to make a real rap movie, if he could get the backing.  That backing would arrive when, after a west coast tour of several of his artist hit the Los Angeles region, he received interest from up-and-coming black Hollywood filmmakers George Jackson, a fellow New Yorker, and Doug McHenry, future producers of New Jack City and the House Party films.  They brought in experienced director Michael Schultz to the mix, who originally envisioned the film as most a concert flick with all the hottest rap artists that concentrated mostly on Run-DMC.  However, the artists felt that they would like to make what they considered to be a ‘real movie’ and do some acting, leading to a couple of ideas about the business and the dangers, that were rejected, but core elements would remain.  After brainstorming a bit and rejecting screenwriter Ralph Farquhar’s grittier first draft to tell a much more realistic story on these rap artists’ rise, Russell’s own story of how he began Rush Management, and his own record label, Def Jam, with Rick Rubin (who appears as himself in the film), proved to be an idea too attractive to pass up.

Warner Bros. agreed to provide the modest funding, seeing the opportunity to sell soundtracks, as well as to promote on of their hotter acts at the time, Sheila E., who was produced by Prince, who had been quite lucrative for Warner on the heels of the film and soundtrack to Purple Rain the year before. Sheila was put into the film not only for the marketing, but the prevailing attitude at the time that female audiences would not go see a male-dominated film without a love interest to hook them into the story.  Sheila, a genuinely talented musician, was unfortunately not street enough for many viewers who actually lived in New York, who jeered at her musical numbers and woefully out of place as the beat of street, even if they were objectively good funk-pop jams independently.

Krush Groove is loosely based on the story of how Russell Simmons (called Russell Walker here, and played by the only experienced actor in the main crew, Blair Underwood (“LA Law”, Rules of Engagement), in his big screen debut, after they moved on from arguing about whether Fab 5 Freddy) and Rick Rubin created the breakthrough hip hop label, Def Jam (called Krush Groove in the movie, though the originally intended title had been Rap Attack), and the kinds of problems they had starting from nothing.  There is some manufactured drama that wasn’t part of the real story of Russell Simmons’ beginnings with Rush Management, his talent representation in music, such as dealings with some drug dealers and mafia types in order to get the cash to keep these acts together, threatening to peel away his talent while also extorting him for more money than he can afford to give them.  Back then, artists flocked to get recording contracts, which were mostly obtained by appearing in talent shows or competitions, and the winner is signed to a record label.  Amid the dog-eat-dog world of urban music, Krush Groove also features a love triangle between Russell and Run (of Run-DMC) for the affection of funk talent, Sheila E.

There isn’t a second that goes by in Krush Groove where I’m not thoroughly entertained by its juvenile, wide-eyed charm, and I’ll admit, there is a huge nostalgia factor that comes into play hearing such songs as “King of Rock” (Run-DMC), “A Love Bizarre” (Sheila E., featuring Prince), “I Can’t Live without My Radio” (LL Cool J), “If I Ruled the World” (Kurtis Blow), “Tender Love” (Force MDs, an early track produced by mega-producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) and many other lesser known, but cult hip hop hits.  There are very few examples of seeing what it would be like to witness these acts perform live on stage, and although they are obviously lip-synching here, it’s as close as we’re likely to get without an 8th generation dub of an underground bootleg.  Fresh, vibrant, and among the best of the genre, this is a terrific pool of talent that paved the way for all of the artists of today, especially the one of the all-time great rap crews to ever hold a mic, Run-DMC.

There is a curiosity factor to many of the decisions employed by the makers of the film, which may be known, but I’ve yet to hear satisfactory answers.  For instance, nearly everyone plays himself or herself in the film, except for Russell, who is being portrayed by Underwood.  Perhaps the part needed a better actor?  Also a large curiosity — while every single one of the rap acts in the film are born and bred in New York City, in the middle of all of this distinctly Bronx-Queens hip hop is Sheila E., Oakland-native, with the trademark sounds of Minneapolis funk, of course, produced by Prince.  There’s no way a band with this dynamic sound or ability could be struggling to gain acceptance in the inner city boroughs of metropolitan New York, nor would it be able to without the necessary street cred.  Perhaps Sheila, being a Warner Bros. artist, and this being a Warner Bros. film, tells the true tale.  Prince’s music was red-hot at the time.

Despite the good music (which the movie portrays as coming together with a minimal of effort, despite good production values), entertaining dialogue, and colorful situations, Krush Groove will probably never be considered a good movie by most definitions, even if it is a fan favorite.  The music numbers are the main draw, but they are loosely hung on a thin plot without enough suspense in where things go.  Also, the acting is very spotty.  I suppose one should cut a little slack to these actors, since almost none of them have ever performed in roles before, and seeing Run, Sheila, and Markie D. show some decent chops actually does make a good impression, aided by Michael Schultz’s wife, Gloria, who served as the acting coach for the inexperienced lot.  It doesn’t help that the script has a silliness that doesn’t allow them to get away with much seriousness, especially when the strictly comedic Fat Boys take up a great deal of the film’s screen time.

Although the film would ultimately be rated R, much of the originally intended dialogue was sanitized to reduce the ‘f’ bombs to just a handful, and changes were also made to the slang of the film, which was also minimized in order to broaden the appeal to markets unfamiliar with the vernacular of New York’s hip-hop scene.  Contrived situations involving the love triangle were also injected for commercial considerations, and the drug and crime elements for added drama, even if had been done with a soft sell approach.  Not everyone liked the fabricated nature of the story, especially in the way Run (Joseph Simmons) was portrayed as caring more about money than family, as well as in letting Sheila E. emasculate him, and even slap him in one scene.

Krush Groove would end up being a modest hit, shot on a meager budget of $3 million, debuting in second place in its debut week.  However, it did receive negative feedback in the press when fights began to break out at various screenings, which would cut into the momentum, and it would plummet out of theaters within six weeks with a small but respectable overall take of $11 million.

Krush Groove is a film so dated, and so quintessentially 80s, I can’t imagine recommending it to anyone who isn’t a fan of old-school hip hop, except perhaps someone who just entertained by kitschy cheesiness.  For those, like me, who love all of these songs, acts, and the era it was made in, we just learn to overlook its substantial flaws, letting the music and nostalgia infuse us with a feeling of the fun and good-nature with which this movie is intended.  Yes, you can have good times with a less-tan-stellar movie, and there’s no better example than Krush Groove.

Qwipster’s rating: B

MPAA Rated: R for language and mild sexuality (I’d rate it PG with some language)
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Joseph Simmons (Run), Blair Underwood, Sheila E., Mark Morales (Prince Markie D), Darryl McDaniels (DMC), Kurtis Blow, Damon Wimbley (Kool Rock Ski), Darren “Buffy” Robinson (The Human Beat Box), Rick Rubin, Jason Mizell (Jam Master Jay), New Edition, Russell Simmons, Sal Abbatielo, Beastie Boys, Donnie Simpson, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Galaxy, Full Force, LL Cool J, Mr. Magic
Director: Michael Schultz
Screenplay: Ralph Farquhar

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